An Oak Tree
by Stewart Pringle
On the inside cover of pale green folded free-sheet handed out by the Box Office outside the Temporary Theatre there is a list of ‘SECOND ACTORS WHO HAVE PERFORMED IN THIS PRODUCTION OF AN OAK TREE‘. There are plenty of names to conjure with – it’s been a very successful play, it’s a bit of an honour – from stalwarts of the British stage like Eve Best and Paul Hunter, to figureheads of the international avant-garde like Laurie Anderson.
One name that jumps out, for me at least, is Roger Lloyd Pack – not mainly out of respect and affection for him as an actor, but because he’s dead. He died in the intervening period between An Oak Tree‘s 2006 UK Tour and its ten year anniversary run here at the National Theatre. There are probably several other dead names on the list that others have picked up on. And if Tim Crouch can be tempted to bring the play back in another ten years, chances are there will be several more. It’s a little sad. This list of collaborators is slowly becoming a monument, one Obituary at a time.
There is nothing unusual about this. It happens with every Original Cast page of every script that has ever been printed, but here, for some very good reasons in this very, very good piece of theatre, it stands out. It matters.
Dan Rebellato has already nailed the essence of this in his introduction to the new edition:
‘[An Oak Tree] does sort of spoil some other theatre for a while, because it acknowledges what other theatre often seeks to ignore. The joy of An Oak Tree is that it explains away how all theatre works, but then does it anyway.’
Crouch’s play undresses and annotates the commonplaces of theatre, commonplaces so common that they have become almost invisible, such that the act of revealing them is almost disorientating.
But the technology of this, the structural techniques which facilitate these realisations, have been well trod. There have been quite a few oak trees worth of paper expended over the use of an unknowing actor as the Father, and as Crouch himself as the hypnotist, but there are other, quieter unveilings too. Our presence as an audience is only a stand-in for another audience which will exist twelve months from now watching the Hypnotist’s act in the upstairs room of a pub. Our involvement isn’t required, because we don’t really exist yet. Later, when faced with the cognitive and temporal disjunct created by the joint occupation of the here and now and the there and then, the Father inquires if something can be done to prevent the tragic death of his daughter from ever occurring, Crouch punches a cackling hole in the fabric of fiction and drives across it with such wild panache that our suspension of disbelief is jiggered, utterly.
It’s clever, of course, but it’s also tapping directly into the universally human experience of grief and the grieving process, of a cross-cultural obsession with the nature of time and the impossibility of taking back even the briefest, stupidest and cruellest mistakes that occur in our lives.
Because, above all, An Oak Tree is a play about control over our lives, our environment, our perception and our destiny.
This sorta feels like Crouch’s grand theme.
In An Oak Tree it seems to work like this:
When a car spins off the road (spins out of control) and crushes a tiny person on the way to her piano lesson, a gap opens up in the world which can seemingly and ostensibly never be filled. Dawn, dead Claire’s mother, is (in the Father’s words) ‘diminished’, because she seeks her daughter in the detritus she has left behind. She seeks her in a finite number of objects and mementos which have accumulated in her house. Threads of hair and photographs. Items which can only reduce in number as they are lost, as Claire was lost. The Father instead finds her ‘multiplied’, he sees her in the spaces between things, in ‘indentations in time, physical depressions, imperfections on surfaces, the spaces beneath chairs’. Her presence is returned to his control and his definition. He is free to pour her into an oak tree by the side of the road, to collapse those possible presences into an object of formidable solidity. Michael Craig-Martin’s own Oak Tree was an oak tree in every respect apart from ‘the accidents of the glass of water’, and this choice of wording is highly significant. By re-affirming the authority of the artist, the viewer, or the sufferer, Crouch’s Father character places his daughter outside of the realm of accidents and occurrences, out of the fascism of phenomenological consensus.
But that’s bullshit.
Because, ultimately, An Oak Tree moves to re-affirm fundamental existential truths which have been the meat of theatre, and of tragedy in particular, since the Greeks. The Hypnotist’s use of Carl Orff’s bombastic ‘O Fortuna’ as his play-in music is no coincidence – the relentless wheel of fortune, of life turning to death in the cycle of human lives is ever-present. Our sympathy may be with the Father and his mania, but the movement of Crouch’s play makes its futility and danger absolutely clear, with the presence of Dawn and her ‘underwritten’ surviving daughter Marcia stood by the side of the road, begging him to surrender his delusion. The play is framed by the Father’s visit to the Hypnotist to seek some form of closure. Like Craig-Martin, Crouch slyly acknowledges the play’s spiritual undertones and hints of transubstantiation, here by the ironic deflation of the priest role to that of the tatty and down at heel peddler of glitzy bullshit. Magic, you ain’t gonna get. Your Lazarus pash, that’s going nowhere.
Transformation, control and the links between them occur again and again in Crouch’s work. My Arm saw one boy’s application of pure will and wilfulness transform him first into a celebrity, then a living commodity, and soon after the play concludes it will make him a dead one. ENGLAND traces the changing value and significance of an organ, which becomes the locus for an exploration of the shifting value of life. The Author sees a group of smugly comfortable intelligentsia shaken and splintered by their exposure to aspects of reality they believe their intelligence and artistry should immunise them against. Adler & Gibb gave us a whole funhouse of plastic authenticity and endlessly reflected deserts of the real, but at its heart was a plea for basic humanity, basic love, as something to hold against the yard sale of our ruin. Because everything is vulnerable. Because everything is for sale. Because that’s the problem.
The Father of An Oak Tree will always have our sympathy, poor fucker. He’s only just been given his script for a start, and as he’s manipulated into the living victim of an event he could have done nothing to prevent, our sympathy stays with him. In the performance on June 24th 2015 the part was taken by Maggie Service, and though you felt there was a certain ‘performed-ness’ to her reading and recitation of the role, she remained an individual caught up by circumstance, locked in an act that she couldn’t escape from.
Because our illusion of absolute control is as phoney as the Hypnotist’s – it’s only an act. And the transmutation of a tree into a dead girl won’t bring her back. There are always forces beyond our control, there are always strings that we don’t see – both within and without our minds and our bodies – and art isn’t coming to save us. All it can do is remind us of what is dangerous and what is important. Remind us to be vigilant, to be strong and to be kind.